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Red revolution brews in India’s tribal heartland

The wave of armed resistance that has swelled in Nandigram, West Bengal, against the acquisition of village land for a special economic zone (SEZ) has spread here, reports Stavan Desai.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2007 01:22 IST
Stavan Desai
Stavan Desai
Hindustan Times

In Dantewada district, deep in the heart of India, a revolution is brewing. The tribals who populate this dark Chattisgarh district are talking about armed insurrection against a 5 metric tonne Tata Steel plant scheduled to come up here by next year on 1,450 hectares of prime agricultural land. It will affect 1,800 villagers in ten villages.

The wave of armed resistance that has swelled in Nandigram, West Bengal, against the acquisition of village land for a special economic zone (SEZ) has spread here. It is threatening to drown an impoverished area, where the per capita income is 40 per cent below the national average, where agriculture is the only means of sustenance and livelihood.

“We know only farming and grow our own food. At this age, what new work can I learn?” asks Nepa Dhuma, 65, from Badanji village. The villagers have found a powerful ally in the Communist Party of India (CPI). On November 5, over a lakh tribals from Dantewada and Bijapur districts gathered at Jagdalpur and pledged to agitate against the project in “every possible manner”. The rally was addressed by CPI general secretary AB Bardhan and other Left leaders.

The talk of insurrection is particularly alarming because the hold of the Indian state is far more tenuous in vast swathes of Chattisgarh than it is in Nandigram.

Between January and October 2007, 134 policemen have been killed in Chattisgarh by Maoist guerrillas.

Parts of both districts, Dantewada and Bijapur, harbour parts of the so-called ‘liberated zone’, an area spread across 10 states, where the state has effectively ceded control to Maoists.

“The project threatens to take away the most fertile agriculture land in the whole of Bastar region. We are not against development of the area or the project in particular. Why eat up such fertile agricultural land that belongs to the tribals?” said Manish Kunjam, tribal leader and former CPI MLA from Konta in Dantewada district.

The compensation package devised by the government and the Tatas after protests starting gaining pace involves a job with the steel giant and land at another site if the farmer is losing more than 75 percent of his land.

The villagers are not impressed. “What good is land that is not ours? What work will I be able to do in a factory?” asked Santosh, a villager in his mid-30s.

“We take three crops in an year along with what we need for vegetables because the land is so fertile. From where will they get us such fertile land?”

The government suggested the CPI is keen on making trouble.

“There is no real resentment. It is only being whipped by certain elements. One-third of the farmers have already registered themselves,” says Chhattisgarh Additional Chief Secretary (Commerce and Industries) P Joy Oommen. Kunjam denied this.

Tatas said that figure is higher. “About 70 per cent of landowners of the first phase have taken their compensation cheques,” the company told the HT in a written response to a query.

But Nandigram is not far from anybody’s mind. “We are watching things closely. The strictest of actions will be taken against anybody coming in way of the democratic process involved in setting up this plant,” said Rajendra Vij, Inspector General of Police (Bastar range).

First Published: Nov 18, 2007 01:21 IST